North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has apologised over the killing of a South Korea official near the rivals’ disputed sea boundary, saying he is “very sorry” about the “unexpected” and “unfortunate” incident, South Korean officials said.
It is extremely unusual for a North Korean leader to apologise to rival South Korea on any issue.
Mr Kim’s apology was expected to ease anti-North sentiments in South Korea and mounting criticism of South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the man’s death this week.
“Comrade Kim Jong Un, the State Affairs Commission chairman, feels very sorry to give big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and South Korean citizens because an unexpected, unfortunate incident happened” at a time when South Korea grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Moon’s adviser Suh Hoon cited the North Korean message as saying.
On Thursday, South Korea accused North Korea of fatally shooting one of its public servants who was likely trying to defect and burning his body after finding him on a floating object in North Korean waters earlier this week.
South Korean officials condemned North Korea for what they called an “atrocious act” and pressed it punish those responsible.
According to the North Korean message, North Korean troops first fired blanks after the man found in the North’s waters refused to answer other than saying he was from South Korea a couple of times.
Then, as he made moves to flee, the North Korean troops fired 10 rounds. When they came near the floating object, they only found lots of blood but no sign of him.
The troops determined he was dead and burned the floating object in line with anti-coronavirus rules, according to the North Korean message read by Mr Suh.
Senior South Korean military officer Ahn Young Ho told a parliamentary committee meeting on Wednesday that North Korea killed the man likely because of elevated anti-coronavirus measures that involve “indiscriminate shooting” at anyone approaching its borders illegally.
Defence Minister Suh Wook said at the same meeting that the official was believed to have tried to defect because he left his shoes on the ship, put on a life jacket and boarded a floating object.
Mr Suh also cited circumstantial evidence indicating the defection attempt. Some experts say there was not enough proof to conclude he tried to cross over to North Korea.
The North Korean message was sent from the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, a top North Korean body in charge of relations with South Korea.
The message said North Korea “cannot not help expressing big regrets” over the fact South Korea had used “blasphemous and confrontational words like atrocious act” to condemn the North without asking it to explain details of the incident.
But it said North Korea is still sorry about such an incident happening on its territory and will take steps to prevent trust between the countries from collapsing.
The presidential Blue House said on Friday that Mr Moon and Mr Kim had recently exchanged letters before the latest incident.
In his letter, Mr Kim expressed worries about coronavirus outbreaks and typhoon damage in South Korea and wished Mr Moon a good health.
“Kim Jong Un’s supposed apology reduces the risk of escalation between the two Koreas and keeps the Moon government’s hopes for engagement alive,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
“The shooting incident was also turning South Korean public opinion against offering peace and humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang.”
Since taking office in 2017, Mr Moon has been pushing hard for warmer ties with North Korea and a negotiated settlement of the North’s nuclear crisis.
His engagement policy once helped produce a flurry of rare exchange programmes with North Korea, but they were nearly stalled amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.
Little is known about the official, except that he was a 47-year-old father of two who left behind some debts, according to authorities.
Maritime police said on Friday they were checking the man’s mobile phone records, bank accounts and insurance programmes.
The coast guard says it was searching waters near the boundary in case the official’s body drifts back.